Book Review: Wherever You Go: A Novel
Politics is front and center in Joan Leegant’s novel about American Jews in Israel—three strangers who arrive with different agendas and whose paths intersect in Jerusalem. Yona Stern has come from New York to make peace with her older sister, Dena Ben-Tzion, who lives on a settlement over the Green Line with her husband and five children. Yona and Dena had quarreled over a personal matter, but the political situation makes Yona feel uneasy from the moment she descends from the bulletproof bus into the community called Givat Baruch. Dena, rigid and self-righteous, does not want a reconciliation and only speaks to Yona through her children.
Two other characters complete the triangle: Aaron Blinder dropped out of the college program that brought him to Israel and winds up at a desert agricultural and ideological training camp for one of the West Bank settlements. The only son of a famous writer of Holocaust novels, Aaron wants desperately to come out from under his father’s shadow and impress him with some deed of his own. Finally, Mark Greenglass, a sweet, sensitive man in his 30s who came to Jerusalem as a baal teshuva (newly Orthodox) years ago, is now considering a life outside of the yeshiva world. After a few weeks in New York with his parents, he returns to Jerusalem to teach at a Scandinavian art school for women—a school that Aaron and his two troubled friends are planning to blow up under the mistaken assumption that it is a front for Arab extremists.
The most articulate character (and most likely the author’s mouthpiece) is a native-born Israeli named Eyal, a new friend of Yona’s, who argues against the settlers’ movement. “They want a big life. Historical, theatrical,” he tells her. “Would I like us to have sovereignty over Bethlehem? Jericho? Sure…but we can’t have everything we want. That’s reality…. We have to find a way to move on. Both sides do.”
“Wherever you go…you take yourself with you,” the novel’s title suggests. Leegant has crafted a gripping story about the interplay between politics and religion in Israel—and what spiritual seekers with personal baggage bring to this volatile mix.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.